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After all the sufferings and agonies of law school — not to mention the hefty price tag — suppose you decide that lawyering is simply not for you? It can happen. Ask Nancy Mahon or Jayne Bigelsen or Leila Finucane Edmonds — three who flew over the cuckoo’s nest, as it were. “Well, I’ve tried everything but practicing law,” says Bigelsen, 32, a graduate of Harvard Law School. “It’s been somewhat confusing, but it’s been a good way to be confused. “I just wanted a job I could love,” says Bigelsen, who for the past two years has worked as legislative affairs director for the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. “It took me a while to find it. “In school, there’s an easy [career] route if you want to take it. Most of my friends did,” she says. “In your second year, for instance, you work as a summer intern at a big firm. I didn’t. Part of the time, my friends thought I was crazy, part of the time they admired me.” Edmonds, a graduate of New York University School of Law, gave the “easy” route a run. She was a corporate associate at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, then a real estate associate at Willkie, Farr & Gallagher. “But I always knew that ultimately I’d like to be in the public arena, hopefully in community development,” says Edmonds, 31, now a mortgage loan consultant for Seedco, the national nonprofit organization offering technical and financial aid to revitalize poor neighborhoods. “I looked at the law firm experience as a chance to pay down some of my student loans,” she says. “And to get a lot of good experience. That’s something the law firms can do that nonprofits can’t — training.” Mahon says the training she received at law school was invaluable in her work now as executive director of God’s Love We Deliver, the city’s largest provider of home meals for victims of AIDS and other debilitating diseases. “A lot of [nonpracticing lawyers] go for a law degree for the skill sets we develop — analytical ability, writing, oral presentation,” says Mahon, 38, also a graduate of NYU Law. “It’s a very flexible advanced degree, maybe the most flexible one.” LEGAL SKILLS PUT TO USE Like anyone else in the United States, perhaps the most litigious society the world has ever known, all three women run up against lawyers and legal issues on their jobs on a daily basis. Before joining the city Bar, for instance, Bigelsen was quite in the thick of the law as a producer for Court TV. “I’d started out working in direct services in areas that particularly interested me — domestic violence and immigration. But then I learned how powerful the media is,” says Bigelsen. “I had no television experience, so I really started at the bottom — booking guests on talk shows and doing research. “I enjoyed it all, but I wanted a more direct impact on society,” she says. “I decided that public policy and legislation was the way to go. One thing leads to another. Now I’m working to influence [New York] legislation, and the law school and Court TV experiences really come in handy when I write editorials and letters to editors and turn lawyer-speak into laymen’s terms.” For Edmonds, who also holds a master’s degree in urban planning, the impact she has on structuring Seedco loans is a new dimension of professional satisfaction that her former transactional law colleagues might envy. “I focus on the details and I review the contracts, but now I have more control over the deal as a business person,” says Edmonds of her Seedco duties. “With straight legal work, you don’t have so much control over business decisions. You sort of wish you did, but you just don’t.” Mahon, too, must deal with contracts every day as head of a nonprofit agency with an annual budget of $8.5 million. She also deals with cronies from NYU Law, and the attorneys she met later during her years as a clerk for two federal judges in Northern California. “I have this endless and wonderful network of people who’ve become public interest lawyers,” says Mahon. “Even if I’m not working as a lawyer, I have to persuade lawyers. To do that, you need to know a certain type of thinking. It takes camaraderie.” Jacqueline Burt, assistant dean at the Center for Professional Development at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, is herself a former litigator who found life beyond day-to-day lawyering. She describes herself as “a firm believer in personal happiness” who happily counsels Cardozo students who may not want to actually practice what they learn in class — with one caveat. “This is what I tell them, right off the bat: Some people will think that if you never practice law you’re somehow inadequate,” says Burt, a contributing author to a book on the subject of alternative careers, Beyond L.A. Law: Breaking the Traditional Lawyer Mode. “In my personal opinion, there’s value in following the law school experience with real world [legal] experience. “But do I have a problem looking a student in the eye who says, ‘The law is not truly for me’? ” she asks. “ Not at all. Look, people get Ph.Ds and they never teach. To me, the value of a law degree is something you can’t put a price on.” As for leaving the world of big-firm law after receiving priceless training, Burt counsels, “As long as you do right by your clients and your superiors, it’s OK. Besides, I think the firms do a pretty good job of exacting their pound of flesh.” This article was distributed by the American Lawyer Media News Service. Thomas Adcock is a staff writer at New York Law Journal.

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